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24 Nov 2013

Few days back, I joined a group of photographers from the Shutter Journey (Singapore) for a night macro outing at Venus Drive. It was the first time for me doing night macro photography, and it was a pleasant experience for me learning from the veterans.

Equipment for Night Macro

Digital Camera with Macro Lens

Besides from the digital camera, macro lens is preferred as it gives a higher magnification ratio (1:1) of the subject. For even a greater close-up or magnification on the subject, the following are some of the options that can be considered:
  • Using macro lens on a cropped camera body. This will give an additional reach into the subject as compared to using a full-frame body.
  • Using extension tubes which will enable the camera and lens to focus at a much closer distance. These tubes does not have optical elements and thus would not affect the image quality, except to ensure that these tubes have electronic contacts which are compatible with the camera and lens to allow control of aperture and auto-focusing from the camera.
  • Using Teleconverter (Extenders) to increase the focal length of the lens. However, the down-side is the lost of up to 2-3 stops of light. In addition, not all teleconverters will work with macro lenses, so be sure to check out the compatibility when using them.
  • Using close-up filters that are screwed onto the front of lens. However, close-up filters are typically known to have image quality issues.
  • Using super macro conversion lens (e.g. Raynox DCR-250) for a larger magnification. The Raynox DCR-250 is attached like as a clip-on at the lens front on the camera. 
  • Using a reverse lens that is mounted in a reverse manner either directly on the camera using a reverse ring OR on top of lens front that is already mounted on the camera using a coupling ring.
Although some of the above options provide a greater close-up or magnification (e.g. using super macro conversion lens or reverse lens), it also requires a closer working distance from the subject (i.e. as close as less than 5cm away) which may be "too close for comfort" when photographing insects. Furthermore, any slightest movement/shake may be noticeable when shooting on hand-held without a tripod.

Flash is a Must

Flashes are critical for night macro photography. There are various different options on how flash can be implemented:
  • On-camera flashes either with the built-in camera flash OR external flash (i.e. standard flash or macro-ring flash) attached to the camera OR multiple flashes attached using flash brackets.
  • Off-camera flashes that is remotely triggered from the camera. This however requires an assistant or tripods for flashes in order to position the flashes in the appropriate location which may be relatively troublesome for set-up if moving from one spot to another.
  • Diffuser for flashes is recommended so as to avoid "hot spots" appearing on the eyes or body of the insects from a direct flash. For my first night macro photography, I had used a soft-box attached to my Canon Speedlite 580 EXII flash on the camera.
  • Continuous lighting such as LED light panels which can also act as "torch light" to help illuminate the subject for focusing. If using LED light panels as the only source of light for your night macro, you will need to ensure that sufficient light panels are used especially if shooting with a small aperture for a deeper depth-of-field (DOF). 
Regardless of the implementation, there is a need to consider the weight of the setup if using hand-held - the heavier the setup, the more efforts will be required to sustain a steady hand-held position.

Torch Light

Torch light is required if the setup does not have LED light panels to help illuminate the subject for focusing.

Tripod is Not Required

It was advised by the veterans that tripod is not necessary for night macro photography at Venus Drive as there is risks of bagging some of the insects home when they climb up the tripod. Personally, I also find it easier to shoot without a tripod as the position of these insects are easier to reach on hand-held.

Equipment Settings

Flash photography is a lot easier on the settings - let's look at how some of the settings on camera, lens and flash would help in night macro photography:

Camera Settings

Go Manual Mode with a small aperture, small ISO and shutter speed that syncs to the flash. 
With flashes, settings are a lot simpler in my opinion. Simply set the ISO to 100 and a shutter speed that syncs to your flash (i.e. for Canon, the flash sync speed is 1/200s). As the depth-of-field (DOF) is pretty shallow with a macro lens at close proximity, a small aperture is desired (i.e. F/13 or higher F-number).

Viewfinder vs Live View Shooting
There will be occasions where you will need to switch between shooting through viewfinder or live view, depending on the position and size of the subjects. 

I'm not going through the debate on whether it is better to take through a viewfinder of live view as I felt that it is a matter of habit or preference although there are significant pros and cons for either ways. Personally, I always prefer shooting through the viewfinder but would switch to live view shooting on several scenarios: (a) the angle/position of the subject makes it difficult for shooting through viewfinder, (b) unable to get the sharpness that I want on the subject, or (c) need to adjust for a better correct exposure of a scene.

Macro Lens Settings

Set focusing distance to the nearest
Most of the macro lenses have a focusing distance settings which should be set to the nearest as this will allow faster focusing when the camera/lens searches for the target as most of the shots will be taken at close proximity (i.e. less than 50 cm).

Automatic vs manual focusing
In most cases, I shoot in automatic focusing. However, if the subject is too small to be focused, I would switch to manual focusing.

Flash Settings

Recommended to switch to manual control on the flash power output. Adjust the flash power output according to the camera settings to create the right ambience.


Most of the insects are rather still at night which would help a great deal when trying to focus on them. The only challenge that I find for my first night macro photography is the need to hold on the torch light with one hand, while trying to focus and take the shot with the other hand. If you are traveling in group, it would help to ask assistance from your friends to illuminate the subject for you, while you can focus on the composition and focusing on the subject.

Alternatively, invest on some LED light panels and flash brackets that can be attached to the camera body. This would enable you to be self-sufficient with consideration that it would also add on additional weight to your camera.

Safety Measures and Precautions

While searching for insects among the bushes with the torch light, there are a few safety precautions that important to take note (especially in the context of Venus Drive location):
  • Always wear covered shoes.
  • It can be really dark (i.e. unable to see your hands without a torch light) and so it is important to move slowly and watch where you step and move. Beware of pit holes on the ground or spider webs in your path. 
  • It is not advisable to travel alone - always go in pairs or group.
  • In the event that you are bitten by a snake, it is important to stay calm and sit down while shouting for help. Where possible, try to identify the color, pattern or type of snakes that have bitten you.
  • Apply insect repellent to help keep the insects away from you.
  • Upon leaving the location, check that you do not bring home any of the friendly insects with you. Pad your clothing and jump around to try shake off any of the insects that may have followed you.

Last but not least, night macro photography of insects could be really fun and exciting. While most of these insects are harmless, there are also certain degree of danger of being bitten by insects especially when macro photography require photographing at close proximity. Always apply safety precaution first e.g. big spiders are nice, but if you are unsure if the spider will bite or is poisonous, then stay away from it.

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